After declaring victory shortly after 10 p.m., McDuffie said District residents can look forward to “a new, fresh, independent, honest broker on the council.”
“It’s a mandate — people want ethical, honest leadership,” said McDuffie, 36, a onetime letter carrier who became a Justice Department attorney. “They want someone who is going to represent everyone in the ward.”
The contest, viewed as a breakthrough for a new generation of young District political leadership, became a referendum on who could best lead a rapidly changing ward trying to balance its middle-class roots with an influx of new residents.
For all but eight of the past 25 years, the politically active ward had been represented by Thomas or his father, Harry Thomas Sr., a political patriarch who died in 1999.
The son, once viewed as a rising star in District politics, was forced to step down in January after admitting that he stole more than $350,000 from the city. Early this month, a federal judge sentenced Thomas to 38 months in prison.
The scandal weighed heavily on the minds of voters, who said they were eager to move past what they consider an embarrassing mark for the ward.
“I’m trying to make more of an effort to be involved and know what’s going on,” Marybeth Grannis, 38, a nurse, said after she cast her ballot for McDuffie at Dunbar High School, in Truxton Circle in Northwest Washington.
Nine Democrats, one Republican and one independent, all African Americans, appeared on Tuesday’s ballot, but the race largely came down to McDuffie, Delano Hunter and Frank Wilds. Hunter trailed McDuffie with 20 percent of the vote. Wilds was third with 15 percent.
Ward 5 includes much of Northeast, including middle-class neighborhoods such as Michigan Park, Lamond-Riggs, Brookland and Brentwood, and part of the increasingly pricey U Street corridor, including Eckington. The ward is predominantly African American, although its white population has doubled in recent years to 16 percent.
During his campaign, McDuffie quickly cobbled together a broad coalition of progressives, environmentalists, union leaders and gay rights activists, among others.
McDuffie racked up overwhelming margins in several Ward 5 neighborhoods that have undergone demographic changes, including Bloomingdale and Truxton Circle. But McDuffie also carried several more socially moderate precincts in the northern part of the ward that observers had predicted as Hunter or Wilds strongholds.
Though McDuffie most recently worked for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) as a public safety adviser after he left the Justice Department in 2010, both the mayor and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) stayed out of the contest.